How Bernie Sanders changed Democratic politics

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Bernie Sanders' improbably successful presidential campaign has finally come to an end.

But what will his legacy be?

Much bigger than for your average runner-up. With his huge crowds, his enormous support among young people, and his ringing criticism of a system rigged for the wealthy, Sanders made a lasting impact on the Democratic Party and progressive politics. Not to mention the policy positions of Hillary Clinton, who may be the next president.


Here are a few of the ways Sanders left his mark.

The Keystone pipeline

In 2010, Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, which meant that the proposal for an international tar-sands oil pipeline between the United States and Canada fell under her jurisdiction.


That year, she talked about the proposed pipeline, known as Keystone XL, at a public affairs forum in California. "We've not yet signed off on it," she said. "But we are inclined to do so, and we are for several reasons."

By July 2015, after massive protests and the arrests of thousands of environmental activists, Clinton had stopped commenting on it. She said she wasn't going to "second-guess" the president, and would state her position if the matter was still undecided when she took office.


Sanders pressed the issue to draw a contrast with Clinton, and by September, she had come out against it, arguing that it wasn't "in the best interest of what we need to do to combat climate change.”


Clinton claims that she did not take a position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed trade agreement between the United States and 11 other countries, until the terms were negotiated.


Her critics love to point out that she once referred to the massive trade deal as “the gold standard,” and not because it was as terrible for America as Ron Paul’s monetary policies would be.

Evidence of Clinton’s previous support for the TPP runs much deeper than just that one comment. CNN compiled a list of 45 times that Clinton publicly pushed for the trade deal while she was secretary of state.


It’s not much of a stretch to credit Sanders for her conversion. He was an early opponent of the trade deal, arguing that it will bleed American jobs, and his opposition was a central part of his campaign even after her position changed.

The minimum wage

When President Obama first announced that he wanted to raise the minimum wage in 2013, the target he chose was $9 per hour, up from the current $7.25.


Then an alliterative movement of wage workers rose up to demand that progressive lawmakers everywhere “Fight for $15.” Sanders embraced their movement, and ultimately forced a $15 minimum wage into the Democratic Party platform.

Clinton had supported a lower federal target of $12 per hour.

Social Security

In his 2013 budget, Obama offered a concession to Republicans in Congress by proposing cuts to Social Security benefits through a change in an inflation measurement known as chained CPI.


At the time, it was seen as a compromise position between congressional Republicans who wanted drastic cuts and liberal Democrats who wanted to leave Social Security alone.

If someone had suggested at that time that we should be spending more on Social Security, they would have been laughed out of the room. But today that is essentially the consensus position of the Democratic Party, thanks in large part to Sanders.


The senator, who blasted Obama’s chained CPI proposal back in 2013, joined with progressive groups to get the party to embrace the idea of expanding Social Security.

By the end of the primary campaign, Clinton had her own plan to expand Social Security for the most vulnerable, and Obama, the man who once tried to cut benefits in the name of compromise, told a crowd in Indiana that, “It’s time we finally made Social Security more generous and increased its benefits.”


Sanders also repeatedly pressed Clinton during the primary on the issue of lifting the payroll tax cap to better fund Social Security, something she vowed in 2008 not to do but now says she will consider.


Though Sanders sometimes found himself at odds with progressives over the issue of Israel and Palestine, he did take a number of important steps that moved the party to the left on the issue.


During a debate in April, Sanders and Clinton had a heated exchange over Israeli military actions in Gaza, with an unprecedented focus on the security and safety of Palestinians during the bombardment.

It was during that debate that Sanders took the small but radical step of telling the Democratic audience: “There comes a time when if we pursue justice and peace, we are going to have to say that (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu is not right all of the time.”


Sanders also used his newfound political clout to appoint two strong anti-occupation voices to the platform committee for the Democratic National Convention. That committee caused controversy four years ago by trying to add language that identified Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Campaign finance

Though both Clinton and Sanders followed Obama in vigorously supporting campaign finance reform, Sanders made the issue a central part of his campaign.


What’s more, the Sanders campaign provided a model for an alternative form of campaign finance that did not rely on the use of unaffiliated super PACs. Like Obama in 2012, Clinton in 2016 publicly opposed the concept of super PACs while her close advisers set them up for her to make sure that the campaign wasn't bringing a metaphorical a knife to a gunfight.

Sanders boasted over and over that the average donation to his campaign was $27. His grassroots campaign proved there is another way to raise massive amounts of money without compromising your party’s principles.


Health care

In the six years since Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law, progressive health care victories have mostly been about protecting the program from conservative attacks.


Sanders, a nearly lifelong advocate of universal, government-run health care, ran a shifted the debate from what we had to give up to what future gains could be made.

Though Hillary Clinton did not embrace so-called single-payer health care during the primaries, there were some signs that Sanders had an effect on her, including her decision to revive the “public option,” a reform that many progressives thought had died with the passage of the ACA.


College affordability

In 2014, a group called the Progressive Campaign Change Committee was working behind the scenes to try win support among Democrats for debt-free college. Their work was not easy. Making college debt-free was a radical shift from the marginal improvements that lawmakers had debated in the past.


But by early 2015, the progressives had the support of Sens. Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren. By May, they had Clinton's backing, too—and there's a good chance Clinton wouldn't have supported it without Sanders in the race.

Because Sanders proposed going even further and eliminating tuition at public colleges and universities, we spent primary season debating not whether debt-free college was a good idea, but how best to go about it.


And then, just last week, Clinton took a big step toward Sanders and endorsed tuition-free college for millions of families.